Friday, May 03, 2013

First instinct of her generation

Claire Messud’s impatience with an interviewer from Publishers Weekly who asked it she’d want to be friends with her own main character caused a stir, but nowhere more so than at Slate, where Katie Roiphe attributed Messud’s impatience to a “certain prickliness on the part of women writers” which is “currently fashionable.”

First Messud’s outburst, which has gone “viral” (as the saying has it). She had just finished describing Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, her fifth novel, as middle-aged, single, and angry. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Annasue McCleave Wilson, the interviewer for PW innocently asks. Messud explodes:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”Unlike the Paris Review, the publishers’ trade weekly does not explain the format and setting of its interviews—whether Messud was speaking extemporaneously, from an edited transcript of a face-to-face conversation, or is engaged in an email exchange is left undisclosed. Whatever the case, her response is remarkable. It summarizes an entire literary worldview and theory in one breath. It should be taped to the foreheads of all those readers who want characters they can “relate” to. Is this character alive? Is she, in other words, a human being? For a novelist of Messud’s realist presuppositions and allegiances, any other question made primary would be naïve and irrelevant.

Now, I’ve been an admirer of Messud for a while. Her 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children, I wrote in Commentary, “is probably the best novel to come out of September 11.” So I’ll acknowledge that I was predisposed to applaud Messud’s response. And what is more, Messud says in far fewer words, far more memorably, what I had struggled to say about the real existence of fictional characters earlier in the year (“To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel”).

At all events, what I heard in Messud’s outburst was a working novelist, a species whom, in its most powerful form, displays the highly developed instincts of a fearsome literary critic. What I heard was a serious writer viciously attacking a serious problem of literature.

But that’s not what Katie Roiphe heard. What Katie Roiphe heard was gender. In her opening sentence, she categorized Messud’s outburst as the “latest fracas over literary sexism.” She allowed that Messud “does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist,” but the question about befriending literary characters is implicitly sexist—Messud herself implies it is. How? By “listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro ‘for that matter’ to make it clear that her list had been about men).” Then, bored with the “fracas,” and having satisfied herself that she knows Messud’s mind, Roiphe hurries on to talk about her own literary experience.

Roiphe’s interpretation of Messud’s response was so distant from mine, so foreign to it, that I was thunderstruck. Belonging to a different sex and an older generation (Messud and Roiphe are fourteen and sixteen years younger than I), I concluded that I was merely demonstrating, once again, how out of step I am. Rereading the whole PW interview with a renewed attention to gender, I found that it had been Messud who first introduced its note. After naming the fiction about which she is passionate (Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Beckett, Camus, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, Thomas Bernhard), she went on to say:[T]hese books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.But damn me, I couldn’t stop hearing the voice of a writer who was setting herself an interesting literary problem to solve. If it is unseemly and dangerous for a man to be angry, a fortiori it is worse for a woman: what then would it be like? Gender revealed the problem but did not constitute it. Any more than the physical condition of a woman with an artificial hip, who sets off the metal detector every time she goes through airport security, is the problem. The problem, God forgive me for saying it, is a human one.

Everything else about her language suggests that Messud agrees. As a writer, she is concerned with illuminating, she says, a “particular human experience.” The question at the heart of her fiction is “how then must we live?” And this question can “only be addressed in the individual, not in the general.” Her narrator Nora is an angry woman, but she is also single and approaching middle age, and[a]s any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned.Messud habitually speaks the language of humanism, not feminism.

My point is not to scold Katie Roiphe, even if I believe the implication of sexism that she finds in the interview question that so angered Claire Messud is only the anger over sexism Roiphe herself brings to many literary encounters. If I am right about Messud’s motivation, however, it means that she is just as badly out of step as am I—that putting literary problems before gender is not the first instinct of her generation, nor of the literary present.

Update: Corey Robin blasts Katie Roiphe for being “inattentive” to Claire Messud’s words, anticipating many of the points I would make a little later.


marly youmans said...

I like the way you treat this little internet tempest. It feels congenial.

To me, the joy and out-pouring abundance one feels in making a living story or poem out of words is central. To give life to sub-creation is the great goal.

Is that stance alien to the times? It's too bad, but so be it.

D. G. Myers said...

Need I observe how badly out of step you are too, Marly?

scott g.f.bailey said...

I thought the purpose of fiction was to make readers feel warm and loved, to make them comfortable with the choices they've made in life and to affirm their prejudices. To present readers with stories of the merely human variety is to break the promise a writer makes. A woman writer presenting an unlikeable protagonist in a serious novel is breaching too many contracts to list here.

Rohan said...

There's also this, which Laura Miller linked to recently, on women authors being pressured to make their female protagonists more likable:

Stories like this do set up a context in which that question easily seems, if not 'sexist,' certainly gendered, whether or not that's exactly the spirit in which Messud herself heard or answered the question. I too applaud her response, in any case.

Wayne Booth talks a lot about literary friendships, but of course the ones he's interested in are with the (implied) authors. That's a whole different story, as it were!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your perceptive analysis of Ms. Messud's remark.

Funny..I've encountered so many snarky/nasty comments about the novelist lately, down to gratuitous remarks about her "Cambridge" hair color/cut.

I enjoy her fierceness.

Unknown said...
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George Sim Johnston said...

Actually, I would love to know the entire Cadenza family in "Infinite Jest". Utterly disfunctional, yes--but endearing.

"Slate"'s literary criticism, especially of the novel, was far more interesting a decade ago.

George Sim Johnston said...

Oops. I meant Incadenza!

Aonghus Fallon said...

I think this is all very well, but sort of misses the point. The only relevant issue is - was there a gender-based subtext to this interview and who initiated it?

Messud's response strikes me as strategic. Popular fiction is about creating characters that readers will identify with (whether they admit to doing so or not) rather than characters with whom the reader wishes to be friends. A character who is female, single, angry etc would strike a chord with a great many readers. Messud's outburst just confirms their hope that she doesn't just write about characters her readers can identify with: she shares their pain as well.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm not sure that Messud considers herself a writer of "popular fiction" or that she'd agree with your claims about the aims of "popular fiction" even if she was such a writer. Any empathetic reader can recognize the humanity of any well-written character, whether the reader can "identify with" or "share the pain" of that character. To recognize the character as human, with real concerns that matter to them, is what's important. I'd bet that Messud is a good enough writer that she found a character through whom she could explore the ideas that were of interest to her at the time, rather than merely creating a character she thought would appeal to an audience. Hence her umbrage at the question.

larry grobel said...

As someone who has spent a good part of my life interviewing people, I have to say that the question was spot-on BECAUSE of the response it invoked. Here you are writing about the response, and people are commenting about it. So, kudos to the interviewer who brought out Messud's wonderful ire.

Gerry Shoshensky said...

A tempest that mentioned Raskolnikov. How often does that happen? I first read about this interview in Poets & Writers daily roundup of news and it made me want to go read Claire Messud, and then reread Crime & Punishment.

Colleen said...

I never felt any inclination towards reading Messaud until I read her "outburst."

I wonder if this issue of being friends with or identifying with characters is the result of a laudable but misguided attempt by high school teachers to get kids to like books. When I was still teaching university English, I spent entirely too much time trying to help students get beyond questions of whether or not characters were either likable or, in the case of female characters, "strong" and therefore worth paying real attention to (but not enough attention to interrogate what "strong" means exactly, or where its value might lie.)

If my suspicion has some merit, I have no solution to offer. But I'm grateful for authors like this challenging such silly notions about what literature is supposed to do.